13 Steps to Becoming a Better Product Manager

Learn some tips on how to become a great technology product manager.

Posted by Michael Bordash on Sat Dec 14, 2013

Technology

After 17 years in start-up and enterprise product development and IT operations, I’ve experienced first hand the wide spectrum of talent in the field of Product Management. From inspiring to detracting, Product Managers play a sensitive role in any organization’s strategy. The effectiveness of the individual leading this effort will determine the success of the internal operation and outward projection of evolution.

Here are thirteen attributes to consider in your role as Product Manager.

  1. Product Strategy is not Product Management.  Product Strategy is a responsibility of your officers, board of directors, client advisory board, and internal employees (business analysts, developers, product managers, operations, sales, client services). The best Product Managers take responsibility and own the incredibly challenging job of organizing all of this input and applying order (agile prioritization) to the chaos.
  2. Product Management is not Project Management. Organizing a backlog is one part of Product Management. Your Project Management skills will definitively come in to play if you’ve transitioned from Project to Product Manager, but this time around you will need to say “no”, break some hearts, and take responsibility for the delivery of your overall roadmap. Reporting on status is a big change vs being responsible for it.
  3. Don’t talk about an idea. Organize it.  While you may have a lot of great ideas, chances are others in the org already thought of them and more likely, your competition. Talking about the great things a company can do is frustrating and wastes precious time, especially in a start-up.  If an idea is truly important to you, schedule a meeting, create a presentation and explain why it should be important to others too.
  4. Avoid sending emails about your competitors and how we should do what they do.  How many emails do you get per day from those one or two people that start with “Read this, this is great, we should do this.”, followed by an insanely long and time sucking email written by someone else that may or may not impact the org? It’s not a bad idea to keep your colleagues up to date about what’s happening in the outside world. However, if your mouse starts to drift towards that Fwd button, write a sentence or two to describe WHY it’s important enough for your recipients to stop what they’re doing and pay attention to you.
  5. Your competitors’ strengths are not a means to promote internal guilt. It is important to consider the competition with every prioritization exercise, however, many times product management will use this external pressure as a beating stick. The best product managers will acknowledge the great work of your competition, but dovetail how your organization will trump the idea, pinpoint the weakness and — if all of the groups in step #1 agree that it will be beneficial to the mission.
  6. Stop sending emails about how we should talk about how to make a new product better. Enough talk. This is what we in technology call “meta work”. It’s not really work. It’s work about work without doing actual work. I bet everyone in your org knows how a process should be improved. The great product manager will spend the 30 minutes to sketch what the executable plan actually is. Talking about the process improvement without the initial sketch wastes time
  7. Stop scheduling product strategy whiteboard sessions.  I’ve come to the conclusion that whiteboard sessions are merely smoke-screens that attempt to shield inept product management from actually having to do real work (aka “meta work”). Once a quarter or twice yearly should be the max to serve as a touch point for business plan update, especially at a start-up where time is severely restricted and execution is key. If you’re scheduling weekly or twice monthly whiteboard sessions to talk about product strategy, then your business plan is seriously flawed and your department or start-up won’t be long for this world. Not to be confused with DevOps sprint planning whiteboard sessions that kick off solving the next problem that your excellent product manager prioritized for you.
  8. Product visionaries should not be in Product Management. The Product Visionary is the CEO. Product Management is a highly operational role, despite what you may believe or heard. If you’re a big picture guy, operations is not your strong suit. Ops and Vision are diametrically opposed disciplines.  If vision is your thing, but don’t yet have the clout to be the CEO, seek out a career in Client Services or Solutions Architecture.  These roles will put you front and center with your customers, pre and post sales, where vision is most needed. Customers sign up with you for a need, they stick with you for your vision.
  9. Absorb Agile Product Management, define your backlog and prioritize your work streams. There are exceptional tools and standard operating procedures that support the Product Management vision. You don’t need to stick your wet finger in the air to judge what you should do next. Come up with a quantitative metric (aka business value) for each of your PRDs and pin point exactly what you should do next.
  10. Define a roadmap for both Strategic and Tactical Development. Strategic Development include full featured products that will take multiple two-week sprints to complete. StratDev typically requires comprehensive product design, tech specs, operational rollout/support procedures, product marketing, training. Whereas TacDev items are short term 1-5 day tasks to make improvements to or fix bugs found within existing products. TacDev should also consider enhancements to win sales opportunities.
  11. The Product Manager is not the Development Manager. The Development Manager decides how a product should be built and how the team will build it, the Product Manager decides what should be developed next. Get familiar with the life of a Development Manager and become his/her partner.
  12. Roadmap timelines must be dictated by the Development organization, not the Product Manager, CEO, VP Sales, CMO. Stating that Feature X will be due out in January without getting an estimate with confidence-level is a setup for failure. The Product Manager has no concept as to the impact unknowns might have on the development time line. Participate in daily stand-ups to address questions regarding your PRD and build confidence with a date range, then ultimately a date.
  13. Don’t expect to be welcome at stand-ups if you’re a Product Manager that doesn’t write PRDs. If you’re not a part of the planning process before product development begins, your participation in stand-ups will not be tolerated or appreciated. The Product Manager’s job is to prepare the feature list, functional descriptions, and attempt to pre-answer every question you can before developer’s fingers meet keyboard.

If you’re in a Product Management role and don’t follow most of the above already, chances are you’ll need to start over. Doing so in the same org will take time as many of your colleagues would have lost considerable patience as they may expect you to already know these items. You’ll need to start by creating a product management organization workflow, getting exec approval to roll-it-out, then begin the tough process of selling your colleagues that you’re actually capable of executing it.  If your colleagues have moved beyond you, it’s time to pull up stakes and start over somewhere else.  Luckily, you’ll know what not to do next time. In addition, there’s a dearth of good product managers out there. If you can espouse the tenets of solid product management organization, you’ll easily find a good next home.

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